Town may hire domestic violence victim advocate

Position would be funded by federal grant

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Domestic violence victims would find an advocate ready to help them at the Williston police station if a local nonprofit receives a grant for the position.

Burlington-based Women Helping Battered Women, the state's largest anti-domestic violence agency, is applying for the federal grant. The funding would pay for a full-time employee stationed at the Williston Police Department. The advocate would also assist victims in cases handled by South Burlington police and the Vermont State Police barracks in Williston.

Officers do their best to help victims but also have to focus on gathering evidence while juggling other duties, Williston Police Chief Jim Dimmick told the Selectboard last week.

"We get by, but we could do so much better, and this grant would help," he said.

Dimmick and Jennie Davis, development coordinator for Women Helping Battered Women, outlined the advocate's duties and explained at the Jan. 28 Selectboard meeting how the position would help.

They asked for and received the board's permission to apply for the grant, despite concerns that the town would feel compelled to continue funding the position when the money runs out after two years.

The town would have no legal obligation to continue paying the person when and if the grant is not renewed, Davis said. The grant provides $86,000 for salary, benefits and office supplies. The advocate would be employed by the town and have an office at the Williston Police Department.

Williston police handled 36 domestic violence cases that were referred for prosecution in 2007, Dimmick said. Women Helping Battered Women served 64 adults and 73 children from Williston during the 2006-2007 fiscal year.

"Unfortunately, not everyone goes to police," Dimmick said in an interview. "Some just want to be safe."

Davis said the Chittenden County State's Attorney also has an advocate on staff, and there are other agencies that help domestic violence victims. But having someone at the police station would give victims a local link to services.

"That's kind of the essence of the whole thing: to provide a coordinated community response to domestic violence," Davis said. "We want to connect all the existing services and make sure services don't just stop at the police station."

The advocate could help victims find housing, obtain restraining orders and deal with family issues. The advocate could also train and advise officers on handling the sensitive cases.

Domestic violence calls present challenges for police. Dimmick said they are "the most dangerous calls for service we go to."

Statistics support his assertion. A review of 10 years of crime data by the Attorney General's Office found that domestic violence fatalities accounted for 52 percent of homicides in Vermont.

"They are not easy," Dimmick said. "They are always emotional, and it's difficult sometimes to get a clear picture" of what happened.

Many cases boil down to one person's word against the other, Dimmick acknowledged. But gone are the days when police separated victim and perpetrator and hoped for the best. Now officers make an arrest and let a court decide the suspect's innocence or guilt.

The grant, administered by the U.S. Department of Justice, is competitive, and there is no guarantee Women Helping Battered Women will receive the funding, Davis said. But she is confident of success because an application was approved last year for the same grant, which funds another victim advocate shared by Winooski, Colchester and Essex.

The grant application will be filed by the end of the month. Davis said she expects to receive word on the grant by late summer or early fall.